June 15, 2006
Consider this: Leaving behind your settled middle-aged, middle class life in the suburbs, and returning to college 35 years after graduation. For a month. No, it’s not a movie, a sitcom pilot or a reality show. Or time travel. Eons after finishing Duke at the tail end of the 1960s, I was invited back to campus earlier this year as a Media Fellow, sponsored by Duke Divinity School and the Sanford Institute. Under the program, I could attend whichever classes I wanted – no quizzes, no tests, no papers. All it took to accept the offer was a green light from my bosses, the one at home and the one at work.
At first, the shift from my Orlando, Fla., suburb to Duke was disconcerting. I had to change gears suddenly from my tightly-scheduled life in central Florida: By day, writing about religion for my newspaper, the Orlando Sentinel; by night and on weekends editing my latest book; plus family responsibilities, including a wife and two teenagers. So naturally (and foolishly), I tried to continue this frenetic pace when I got to campus, sitting in on as many classes and lectures as I could, like a starving man turned loose at a buffet. It was as if I was doing penance for the academically dissolute time I spent as an undergraduate – all those classes I skipped when I was more interested in politics out on the quad, the nation and the world.
Some courses I sought out, like Greg and Susan Jones’ Leadership and Discipleship, Rabbi Steve Sager's on Talmudic Judaism, and Teresa Berger’s Women in the Christian Tradition; others I found through serendipity. After one of his captivating church history lectures, I was chatting with David Steinmetz when Stanley Hauerwas and his students in the next class infiltrated the room. Frankly intimidated by his reputation, I hadn’t planned to hit Hauerwas’ classes, but we struck up an amiable conversation, and when I heard the course title – Christianity and Radical Democracy – I decided to stay, and came back, twice. During one of these classes, a student sitting near me said I should at least sample Paul Chilcote’s course on evangelism.
At the divinity school, I was surprised (but shouldn’t have been) to find that the seminars and lectures usually begin with a brief word of prayer – Department of the Obvious. But sometimes the devotions went on more than a few minutes. In fact, in one of the Chilcote classes I got to, the first 40 minutes were taken up with a Communion service, based on the 17th century Book of Common Prayer. Several times, while deep into his lecturing, Chilcote would sometimes lose track of the clock. “I hate time!” he exclaimed. Hearing him say this in Durham had an “Appointment in Samarra” quality. For years, Chilcote taught at Asbury Theological Seminary’s Orlando campus, yet this was the first time I met him or heard him.
In his Christian history class, Grant Wacker provided the best definition I have heard of the Socratic method of teaching: “Guess what’s in the teacher’s head.” Not all of my classes were in the div school. Over in the English department, I was able to renew an old acquaintance with novelist Reynolds Price, who was teaching a course on the literary aspects of the New Testament. No matter how many times I hear his voice on National Public Radio, it is nothing like listening to that rich, distinct sound burbling up from the source. Eric Meyers, in the Religion Department, has long ago forgiven my undergraduate rudeness and allowed me into his biblical archaeology seminar.
Much of the classroom discourse, especially at the graduate level, went over my head, a reminder of why it took me five years to escape – barely – with a B.A. In other classes, especially right after lunch, there was the familiar clock-watching and yawn-stifling, as I was further lulled by the note-taking hum of dozens of laptops. Still, the atmosphere was usually stimulating. I was rapt, listening to Bill Turner, my old classmate – and fellow rabble-rouser – now pastor of a large African American church in Durham, lecturing prospective ministers on how to construct a sermon. Later, I was able to sit in on a session where Turner’s students practiced and critiqued sermons in small groups, a valuable and unique opportunity for a religion writer.
There was life outside the classroom as well. Looking around the quad, I soon noticed that I had picked the right backpack (Swiss army red-and-gray) but had the wrong hairstyle (unfashionably long). Inevitably, lots of memories haunted my stay. The turbulent ’60s at the university shaped my life, my politics and my cultural values. Years working on the Chronicle, some of them writing a column called “The Readable Radical,” propelled my professional life for the next four decades. So on this visit, I made sure to climb the three floors of Flowers Building, just to stick my head in the door without fanfare or introduction, just to breathe the air again.
Of course, there were some disappointments and schedule mix-ups. Before coming to Durham, I mailed myself a box of about a dozen books on American religion that I have been meaning to read for years, including two by Alan Wolfe and Charles Kimball’s When Religion Becomes Evil. My first day at the divinity school I bought Wacker’s Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Not surprisingly, I didn’t read a single one. And by the time I got around to showing up for Lauren Winner’s weekly class on Marriage in Literature, she was passing out mid-term exams. As usual, I was unprepared (some things never change).
All of these experiences on campus, I am sure, will deepen my understanding of American religion in my articles and books. Back in Orlando, the thing I like most about my job is that part of it I see as an ongoing tutorial, drawing from authors and professors far more than what will go into my stories. When John Dominic Crossan – the renowned expert on the historical Jesus and first-century Christianity – retired to my part of Florida I rejoiced. The last week of my stay at Duke – the day before my 59th birthday – I delivered a lunchtime lecture at the divinity school. The topic was from my forthcoming book, what I have learned about living among and writing about evangelical Christians in the Sunbelt suburbs. Thanks to some coercion on the part of friendly faculty, we had a respectable crowd. In a way, the talk closed a circle for me. In Oscar Hammerstein, Jr.’s Broadway musical, “The King and I,” a character sings, “There's a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought. That if you become a teacher, by your pupils you'll be taught.” I didn’t notice any of my old professors in the crowd, but I like to think they were out there somewhere, scratching their heads in wonder, if not disbelief.